The Humanities in the 21st Century: Perspectives from the Arab World and Germany – An Introduction

تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص

An Introduction to the TRAFO series “The Humanities in the 21st Century: Perspectives from the Arab World and Germany” by Nuha Alshaar (American University Sharjah/Institute of Ismaili Studies, London), Beate La Sala (Freie Universität Berlin), Jenny Oesterle (University of Passau) and Barbara Winckler (University of Münster). This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA).

The role of the humanities, their standing in the academic field and their impact on society are questions of global relevance. These questions have become highly topical particularly in the Arab world, where the various disciplines within the humanities face considerable obstacles. This situation seems to have been caused by a number of reasons, such as limited access to financial resources, restricted opportunities to contribute to international knowledge production, lack of prestige and status, and other job market considerations, which often deter promising students from majoring in any of the humanities’ disciplines. The humanities in Germany also face challenges, some of which are similar to those encountered in the Arab world. More precisely, in addition to struggling with financial restraints, the value of the humanities is called into question from a utilitarian standpoint, and they tend to be played off against the social sciences.

Why is it important to study, teach and do research in the humanities? What role do the humanities play in the Arab world and Germany – both in the academic domain and the public sphere of ‘societies in change’? Which challenges and obstacles do scholars in the humanities face across the Arab world, especially in war or postwar situations, such as in Syria, Yemen or Iraq, and which research opportunities do the students and academics have? What could be done to strengthen the humanities in the Arab world, in Germany and on a global level? And what can we learn from each other’s experiences?

Fig. 1: From the Graphic Recording “The Place of Humanities in Research, Education and Society: An Arab-German Dialogue.” Illustration by Gabriele Schlipf, 2019. All pictures were taken during the international conference “The Place of Humanities in Research, Education and Society: An Arab-German Dialogue,” Freie Universität Berlin, 8-10 November, 2019.

These and other questions were raised and discussed at the international conference “The Place of Humanities in Research, Education and Society: An Arab-German Dialogue,” which was held in Berlin in November 2019, as part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA), and was generously funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The conference was initiated and organized by Nuha Alshaar (American University Sharjah/Institute of Ismaili Studies, London), Beate La Sala (Freie Universität Berlin), Jenny Oesterle (University of Passau) and Barbara Winckler (University of Münster), who are all AGYA members or alumnae. Looking back at several years of AGYA activities and experiences in their respective professional contexts, the organizers felt the necessity of discussing these issues on a broader level. Based on our shared experience, the humanities do not receive the same amount of attention and support as the sciences, and terms such as ‘innovation,’ ‘excellence’ and ‘relevance’ are mostly attributed to technology and the sciences. Societal development and welfare, however, are not solely based on technological innovations. The knowledge and the skills one acquires in the various fields of the humanities are essential factors for the development of any particular society and for dialogue and cooperation on a global scale. A comparative study of the history of ideas, cultures, literatures and political phenomena, for example, sheds light on the entanglements of and the mutual influences between these very cultures, ideas and texts.

Jenny Oesterle, President of Freie Universität Berlin Günter M. Ziegler, and Nuha Alshaar (from left to right) at the opening of the conference. Photo by Judith Affolter.

More than 80 scholars representing numerous branches of the humanities, university officials, representatives of funding institutions, and practitioners working in museums and the media, all based in Germany and various Arab countries, were invited to discuss their experiences and present best practice examples. The conference, thus, generated broad and dynamic discussions on the role of the humanities in the Arab world and Germany and on their relevance and potential in Arab and European societies, while also perceiving both in a global context. Panel discussions, keynote lectures and parallel workshops tackled a broad range of topics, such as teaching humanities at universities and secondary schools, opportunities for research funding and Arab-German cooperation in the humanities, the impact of ‘translating knowledge to society,’ digital humanities, and specific disciplinary perspectives in the fields of history and archaeology, literary and cultural studies, philosophy and ethics, gender studies and law. Furthermore, within the framework of the conference, a prize competition was held to highlight initiatives with special achievements in communicating humanities to society in general. Two from among the ten projects that were shortlisted for the award and invited to take part in a poster presentation were chosen to receive the AGYA Humanities Award: The SAWA Museum Academy (located in Berlin and Sharjah), a nondiscriminatory and diversity-oriented museum educational program for young professionals in Arabic-speaking countries and Germany, and the Egypt-based Mubtadaa’ initiative that offers training in ‘critical humanities’ to high school students. Recommendations aiming at consolidating the role of the humanities in academia and beyond will be published in the form of a policy paper within the next few weeks as an end product of this multilateral dialogue.

Barbara Winckler and Beate La Sala (from left to right) at the opening of the conference. Photo by Judith Affolter.

This conference was certainly not the first to tackle these issues and raise such questions, which have been discussed in various contexts for decades. We mention only three recent examples: In 2017, a presidential symposium was held at the American University of Beirut, titled “The Humanities at AUB: Building Better Futures from Inside Out.” One main issue that was discussed was the relevance of a humanities (or liberal arts) education for all students, even those majoring in other disciplines, while emphasizing that “the skills and habits of mind that the humanities impart can help greatly in many professional settings.”

In 2018, the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS), in collaboration with UNESCO, organized a two-day meeting titled “Recentering Humanities: Knowledge and Dialogue in the Arab Region.” This meeting was a follow-up to the World Humanities Conference process initiated in 2017, and one of its main goals was to organize an exchange of ideas among Arab scholars in view of a common vision of the future of the humanities and to strengthen the collaboration between policy and research. The participants highlighted the key role of Arab researchers in the humanities, which consists of providing policymakers with a profound and new understanding of the pertinent challenges facing the Arab world, emphasizing the important role of the humanities in addressing current global challenges.

Only two months before our conference, the Volkswagen Foundation and the German U15 association of leading research universities organized an international symposium under the title “Positioning the Humanities in the 2020s” that brought together scholars from Germany, other Western European countries, the US, South Africa, Hong Kong and Singapore. A wide range of aspects were discussed during the conference, including the different academic traditions and values which affect the standing of the humanities. However, colleagues from the ‘Global South’ were not involved.

Poster Presentation ‘AGYA Humanities Award’ at the conference. Photo by Judith Affolter.

Each of the three conferences tackled, from its own perspective, a number of aspects that were at the center of our discussions. The specific character of the kind of knowledge created in the humanities was a recurrent topic: Their relationality and “integrative capacities,” as emphasized by the Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, Wilhelm Krull, or their being “not a safe space,” but rather involving an “emergent and revisionary knowledge,” “ethical tension” and “epistemological uncertainty,” as Homi Bhabha (Harvard Humanities Center) put it. While stressing the relevance of the humanities, many speakers argued strongly against the humanities becoming a service industry for the sciences. Another issue that came up in various discussions was the impact that the structures or the institutional frameworks have on research and teaching practices: While humanities centers at various universities act as crossroads for colleagues from different disciplines, allowing them to meet on a regular basis, the allocation to faculties often limits approaches that go beyond conventional patterns. The distinction between area studies and the ‘systematic disciplines,’ for example, delegates “the study of non-European cultures and societies to regional experts and institutionally small disciplines,” as stated in the outline of the research program “Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe” (EUME; 2006). This leads us to another crucial point, namely, how Eurocentric attitudes and strategies of othering are still prevalent in European universities. The way in which “Arab studies” have been introduced as an academic discipline, for example, has set Arabic literature, Arab history and Arab philosophy apart from the general fields of literary studies, history and philosophy. On the other hand, scholars in the ‘systematic disciplines’ rarely work with texts or other sources in non-European languages, and research published in these languages is largely neglected in Western academia. Many scholars in the humanities, thus, acknowledge the urgent need to change their research attitudes and work towards an engagement with indigenous knowledge and local languages in order to counterbalance dominant norms of internationally accepted knowledge production.

This blog series, titled “The Humanities in the 21st Century: Perspectives from the Arab World and Germany,” takes up key issues that were raised and discussed during our conference. Twenty scholars from several disciplines, such as history, archaeology, art history, literary studies, philosophy and gender studies, and representatives of cultural and funding institutions from Germany and various Arab countries were asked to contribute short essays exploring both the challenges and the potentials of the humanities from their respective regional and disciplinary perspectives. Discussing the difficulties, needs, recent developments and future visions of how to enhance the standing and the impact of the humanities in academia and beyond, the essays respond to (some of) the following questions: What are the main obstacles the humanities are facing today? What can be considered their potential contribution to both present and future challenges? What could be improved in the way the humanities are taught at universities and high schools? Which formats are most likely to succeed in ‘translating knowledge to society’? Should scholars in the humanities intervene in or respond to political and societal questions and how?

Adopting a transregional and multidisciplinary perspective, this blog series aims at raising the awareness of analogies and differences that the humanities are facing in various regional and institutional contexts and, above all, presenting and discussing examples of best practice in the fields of research, teaching and outreach to society. In this respect, we would like to stress that the conditions that the humanities are facing in the Arab world and in Europe may differ. However, we have also observed considerable differences concerning the situation of the humanities within the Arab world and within Europe, even within each single country. The essays included in this series will hopefully stimulate further discussions about the place of the humanities in the 21st century and the types of contribution that they can make to society. They also explore the necessary conditions required for the humanities to succeed in achieving this task. This task of creating the right conditions for the humanities to flourish is of utmost importance in a globalized world that is increasingly becoming more complex, and perhaps even more precarious and vulnerable, considering the ongoing technologization and digitization of its spaces and the increasing threat of political radicalizations and climate change.

Barbara Winckler is a senior lecturer and researcher of modern Arabic literature and culture at the University of Münster. Her research interests include modern and contemporary Arabic and Francophone fiction (particularly war and post-war discourses in Lebanon), Arabic journals of the nahḍa period, and recent developments in Arabic studies as an academic discipline. She is an alumna of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities and co-director of the international summer school program “Arabische Philologien im Blickwechsel / نحو دراسات عربية برؤى متعددة“. Her recent book publications include Grenzgänge: Androgynie – Wahnsinn – Utopie im Romanwerk von Hudā Barakāt (2014) and al-Dirāsāt al-ʿarabiyya wa-intifāḍāt al-rabīʿ al-ʿarabī (2019, co-authored). She has also co-edited, among other works, Arabic Literature – Postmodern Perspectives (2010), Media Transitions and Cultural Debates in Arab Societies (special issue MEJCC, forthcoming 2021), and Thinking through Ruins (forthcoming 2021).

Beate Ulrike La Sala received her PhD in Philosophy in 2010 at Freie Universität Berlin. She was a research associate at the Department of Religious Studies at Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen and Universität Potsdam. Since 2012 she has been a postdoctoral research and teaching associate at the Institute of Philosophy at Freie Universität Berlin. Her research program in the history of philosophy has explored the shared intellectual tradition of Classical Arabic and Latin philosophy, the influence of Classical Arabic thought on early modern philosophy, and the reception of early modern philosophy in neo-Kantianism. Since 2017 she has been elected member of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Jenny Rahel Oesterle El-Nabbout is Professor of Medieval European History and its Cultures at the University of Passau (since 2020). Her research focus is on the History of Medieval Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. She recently finished her ‘second book’ (Habilitation) on the persecution and the protection of refugees in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Her publications and research interests further include medieval court rituals in Latin Europe and the Islamic world, interreligious contacts in the medieval Mediterranean, medieval Arab historiography and cartography, and the history of historical Studies (Wissenschaftsgeschichte) especially in Germany and the Middle East. Jenny Oesterle El-Nabbout is an alumna of the Arab German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Nuha Alshaar (PhD Cambridge University) is a senior research associate at the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, where she focuses on the reception of the Qur’an in classical Arabic literary traditions (adab), and on Qur’anic commentarial traditions and ethics. She also teaches Islamic Intellectual History and Thought as well as Arabic Literature at the American University of Sharjah at the rank of Associate Professor. Her publications include Ethics in Islam: Friendship in the Political Thought of al-Tawḥīdī and His Contemporaries (2015), co-authored book On God and the World: An Arabic Critical Edition and English Translation of Epistles 49-51 of the Brethren of Purity (OUP 2019), and, as editor, Qurʾan and Adab: The Shaping of Literary Traditions in Classical Islam (OUP, 2017) and Sources and Approaches (2013). She is currently preparing an Arabic edition and an English translation of Coptic manuscripts about a debate between two Christian monks and a rabbi that happened in the town of Tomi in Egypt. Nuha Alshaar is an alumna of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA).

Citation: Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler, The Humanities in the 21st Century: Perspectives from the Arab World and Germany – An Introduction, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.03.2021,

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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1 Response

  1. 26. April 2021

    […] This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here. […]

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